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NISAR, the NASA-ISRO joint earth observation mission passes key tests at Bengaluru

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16 Nov 2023
Dr. Laurie Leshin (centre), and Phillip Barela(right), along with spokesperson Samantha Jackson(left) at the media briefing in Bengaluru.

The NASA-ISRO Satellite Aperture RADAR (NISAR) mission is an Earth observation satellite jointly built by the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) at NASA and ISRO, India. The mission would enable detailed observation of earth’s land and ice mass at an unprecedented scale and precision.

The satellite, set to launch in early 2024, is at ISRO’s Satellite Integration and Test Establishment at Bengaluru, where it just passed a key test.

“The satellite has been in the thermal vacuum chamber for the last 21 days and has just come out today,” remarked Mr. Phillip Barela, the NASA NISAR Project Manager.

The thermal vacuum chamber, as the name suggests, subjects the satellite to harsh temperatures and strong vacuum, simulating the conditions in space. The satellite has performed remarkably well in this key test, but will be subjected to more in the coming days.

Dr. Laurie Leshin, Director of JPL, and Mr. Barela had visited the testing site to review the progress of the mission. The U.S. Consulate General, Chennai also facilitated a NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) media roundtable moderated by American Diplomat and Spokesperson Samantha Jackson at the Leela Palace in Bengaluru. At the media briefing, the duo expressed joy and satisfaction about the progress, particularly the performance of the satellite in the thermal vacuum chamber.

“Next, the satellite will be subjected to vibrations and shaking like it would experience during the actual launch,” explains Mr. Barela talking about the battery of tests to come before the launch. “It will also soon be fitted with its solar panels and its 12-metre reflector, which is one of the largest we have ever deployed on such a satellite,” he adds.

NISAR will be the first mission to house radars of two different frequencies. It will have an L-band radar, which has a frequency range of around 1-2 gigahertz and is good at penetrating clouds and vegetation, and an S-band radar, which has a frequency range of 2-4 gigahertz and is good at short and long range transmissions. Together, the radars will provide high-resolution data of the earth's land and ice mass and precisely measure any changes in them. NASA’s JPL, leads the U.S. component of the project and is providing the mission’s L-band SAR and other critical components.The U R Rao Satellite Centre (URSC) in Bengaluru, which leads the ISRO component of the mission, along with the Space Applications Centre in Ahmedabad is providing the S-band SAR electronics and other components, including the launch vehicle.

“This has been a phenomenal partnership between NASA and our Indian counterparts. This has been truly a 50-50 partnership and we have been shoulder to shoulder through this entire process,” remarks Dr. Leshin, about the partnership with ISRO.

Once ready, the satellite will be mounted atop ISRO’s Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mark II and launched from Satish Dhawan Space Centre at Sriharikota in Andhra Pradesh. Once in orbit, the satellite will scan nearly all of earth’s land and ice surfaces twice every 12 days. The gathered data, which will be huge – close to 35 terabytes of data a day – will be open sourced and freely available once it has been calibrated and verified.

The unprecedented resolution of the images captured by the satellite will provide key insights into ecosystem changes, changes in vegetation, movement of glaciers and ice caps, groundwater measurement, and even track natural hazards like earthquakes and volcanoes and many other aspects of earth’s land and ice cover.

“There are a lot of things we expect the satellite to measure, but my guess is we’ll also have things that we didn't even expect to see,” says Dr. Leshin, excited about the possibilities in the future that NISAR would enable.